Ultra-Orthodox Parties Join Forces to Thwart Shabbat Buses in Israeli Cities

After a number of cities bypassed ban on public transportation on Jewish day of rest, religious parties take action, and they want Netanyahu's help.

David Bachar

The ultra-Orthodox parties are seeking ways to block cities’ operation of public transportation on the Jewish Sabbath and want Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to back their efforts.

This week, five local governments said they planned to introduce bus service on Shabbat by exploiting loopholes in the law, which in general bans public transportation from Friday evening to Saturday evening.

In response, Interior Minister Arye Dery, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and Knesset Finance Committee chief Moshe Gafni have set up a team comprising their parties’ legal advisers. The goal is to block the Shabbat bus initiatives in Arad, Be’er Sheva, Herzliya, Kfar Sava and the Emek Hefer region near Netanya.

The shutdown of public transportation on Shabbat is considered part of the decades-old status quo on religion and state. It is observed in nearly all areas except for limited service in Haifa, where buses ran on Shabbat before the state was founded in 1948.

By law, the transportation minister has the authority to permit or forbid public transportation on the Sabbath, but this authority has never been invoked.

“We will demand the prime minister’s support for the process of enshrining the status quo in law,” Litzman said. “There is a status quo and we must stop regarding it as a suggestion, but establish it in law. We are examining all legal aspects of this and will craft a position shortly.”

The heads of the parties’ parliamentary groups held their first meeting on Monday, and immediately afterward the Interior Ministry legal adviser, Yehuda Zimrat, wrote to Herzilya’s legal adviser, Anat Baharav Keren, asking that the legality of the city’s plan be examined.

Political sources told Haaretz that the parties’ legal team intended to send similar letters and consider the legality of the plans in other cities as well. The heads of the parliamentary groups also plan to submit a bill aimed at plugging the holes that permit public transportation and commerce on Shabbat.

In a letter, Zimrat noted that the Herzliya municipality intended to operate a “summer line” on Shabbat and holidays.

“The line is meant to serve as a municipal transportation service to the beach and entertainment and leisure spots in the west of the city, and operate between 8 A.M. and 4. P.M,” he wrote. “This constitutes the operation of a public transportation service. Please address the preliminary question regarding a local government’s authority to run public transportation services at all.”

As Zimrat put it, “There is a requirement to obtain a license from the Transportation Ministry to operate public transportation lines. In accordance with the information we have, you submitted a petition in 2012 against the Transportation Ministry for not responding to your request to obtain such a license, a petition that in the end, as far as we know, you withdrew.”

Herzliya officials said they were studying the letter, which requires a response within a week. The city plans to start its free Shabbat bus service on Friday July 1. The officials said the line would operate only on main roads and would not disturb the quiet.

On Wednesday, the Knesset voted down a bill submitted by MKs Yael German, Karine Elharrar and Yoel Razbozov, all of the centrist Yesh Atid party. The bill sought to let local governments run limited minibus service on Shabbat to help low-income people travel without having to pay for taxis.

“Children, teenagers, young people, low-income families and senior citizens without a driver’s license or car will remain stuck in their homes on Shabbat and holidays because the State of Israel isn’t prepared to operate limited public transportation on Shabbat,” German said.

The bill was designed to honor the feelings of ultra-Orthodox Jews and other religious people, she said.

“The lines were not to run in their neighborhoods or near synagogues, but to provide a way for weak populations to get to leisure and entertainment sites on the days of rest, thereby achieving social justice for everyone. We cannot sweep this important and just issue under the rug, and we will continue to fight for it until it passes.”

Late last week, a poll was conducted by the Smith Institute for the Hiddush religious freedom and equality group among 500 Jewish adults. In the survey, 72 percent of respondents supported public transportation on Shabbat, including 52 percent of the religious community. Of the religious supporters, 49 percent preferred limited public transportation, while 3 percent would accept public transportation as it runs on weekdays.